It has been widely observed that something has gone awry with the Conservative party. Where once its watchwords were pragmatism and economic competence, solicitous commentators now point out that the party is dominated by a fixation with leaving the EU that has, at best, only a nodding acquaintance with the realities of modern capitalism.
But the idea that the Conservatives recently took a wrong turn relies on a rather fuzzy historical contrast between an earlier, less doctrinaire conservatism and the ferocious euroscepticism that has recently become synonymous with the party.
Michael Oakeshott has even been pressed into service by broadsheet columnists to illustrate this point. Unlike the Jacobins on the Conservative benches who will only settle for their ideal Brexit, Oakeshott argued that to be conservative “is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to Utopian bliss.”
One weakness of this historical contrast is that the Conservatives have in fact been a party of radical reform since the 1980s and have previously undertaken a number of policy shifts that were nearly as reckless as Brexit. The rupture in Conservative statecraft is therefore not a recent one. Rather, it is the product of a party that fundamentally misinterpreted the experience of Thatcherism.
The Thatcher years convinced many Conservatives that economic shocks were politically fruitful tools for improving industrial performance. And fatally, many Conservatives took a key lesson of the 1980s to be that a purportedly Thatcherite exertion of sheer will power is sufficient to implement radical reforms. In short, after the 1980s the Conservative party became less a party of ideas and more a party of hubris.
The debate over Britain’s relationship with Europe provides one useful lens through which to observe this transformation. Conservative pro‐Europeanism as it took shape in the 1960s and 1970s was preoccupied by an argument based on national interest – that Britain could only remain powerful in international affairs if it took its place as an influential member within the European Community. However, this was itself based on the claim that the decision‐making power of the British Parliament was de facto qualified by the realities of economic interdependence and the rise of global superpowers.
The apparent ineffectiveness of British governments during the 1960s and 1970s reinforced this point. As Margaret Thatcher put it during the 1975 European referendum campaign: “If Britain were to withdraw, we might imagine that we could regain complete national sovereignty. But it would, in fact, be an illusion. Our lives would be increasingly influenced by the EEC, yet we would have no say in decisions which would vitally affect us.”
One of the reasons that Conservative pro‐Europeanism faded away in the 1990s and early twenty‐first century is that British conservatism lost the sense of the fragility of Britain’s prospects that preoccupied its key figures in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Instead, British Conservatives reverted to the sovereigntist position that had been memorably articulated by Enoch Powell in the 1970s. Powell had argued that Parliament was central to British identity and that reasserting the sovereignty of Parliament would reawaken the British nation.
From this perspective, the experience of the Thatcher government provided a massive boost to Conservative self‐confidence, because it demonstrated that Conservatives could win popular arguments for capitalism and that British parliamentary majoritarianism was well‐suited for this purpose. If the Conservatives assembled a political coalition of just over 40 per cent of voters, they then found that they could radically restructure the British economy. Where once Conservatives had looked at Britain’s postwar history and seen a trajectory away from imperial power to economic decline, they now saw the trend as from the socialist backwater of the 1970s to a reinvigorated nation at the end of the twentieth century, thanks to Margaret Thatcher’s fearless stewardship.
But this story about Thatcherism was almost entirely context free, a simplistic mirror image of the left‐wing critique that the Thatcher government was solely responsible for the death of British industry. For example, the fact that this national reinvigoration took place while Britain was a member of the European Community received surprisingly little attention by later British Conservatives.
Indeed, for Thatcherites at the time, the Single European Act represented a significant victory for their agenda of free trade and economic liberalisation and owed much to the work of the British Conservative, Arthur Cockfield. For later Conservatives, it became a historic defeat and a gross intrusion on sovereignty. Equally neglected by Conservatives was the way in which structural economic shifts such as deindustrialisation and financialisation provided the Conservatives with a political playing field on which the left would inevitably be forced onto the defensive.
The Conservative party that returned to power in 2010 hadn’t done much thinking about the implications of these points. Instead, it had internalised a kind of vulgar Thatcherism, which ascribed the sustainability of the Conservatives in government purely to the political agency of Margaret Thatcher and her allies. The demand of the Conservative right for a more forceful Brexit, underpinned by a government that really believes in it, is derived from this deceptive reading of the past. Brexit is simply the most egregious example of a conservatism that long ago came to view the unknown as preferable to the familiar and which has little interest in Oakeshott’s more limited aspiration of a statecraft in which the aim is “to keep afloat on an even keel’ amid ‘a boundless and bottomless sea”.